Community Inspired at Inaugural Black History Celebration Dinner

The town of Merrillville’s inaugural Black History Celebration Dinner combined inspiration, entertainment, and a commitment to the future. As the historic event concluded Thursday, it was announced that Merrillville leadership and the town’s special event committee are establishing a student scholarship program that will assist Merrillville and Andrean high school seniors with college or trade school tuition as well as other school costs to further their education. The scholarship program is possible because of the tremendous ticket purchases for the sold-out event and the many sponsorships from local businesses and community organizations.

“Thanks to all of you in this room, we were able to have this kind of impact in the lives of the future of our leaders in this community,” said Dr. Danny Lackey, who served as the master of ceremonies at Thursday’s event.

Dr. Danny Lackey announcing the scholarship program. He served as the event MC.

The scholarship program continues to be organized, and more details could be provided in the coming weeks. The Merrillville-based Legacy Foundation will administer the scholarship program. More than 350 people attended the inaugural Black History Celebration Dinner at the Mike Anderson Chevrolet Event Center at the Dean and Barbara White Community Center. Thursday’s dinner carried the theme of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has come to be known as “The Black National Anthem.”

The Three Sapranos sing Lift Every Voice and Sing at the inaugural Merrillville event.

The keynote address was delivered by Hammond native Alonzo Weems, the executive vice president of enterprise risk management and chief ethics and compliance officer of Eli Lilly and Company. Weems explained the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson.

“These lyrics are sung harmoniously year after year at schools, churches, and parts of community programs during Black History Month,” Weems said. “The song often reemerges during black family reunions in the summertime, too.” To honor Johnson’s legacy, Weems encouraged attendees to reimagine “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “Not just as a poem or even an anthem, but a calling,” Weems said. “A calling to help us evolve in the process. Indeed, a calling on our lives.” Weems told attendees that the theme of the event is more than the poetic words of an anthem, it directs everyone to lift each other up. “The call to lift every voice, to serve every voice, to pull up every voice, to reach back to every voice, to improve every voice, to make better every voice, to instill worth in every voice,” Weems said. “That’s what the song really calls us to do.”

Alonzo Weems, VP of Enterprise Risk Management, and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of Indianapolis based Eli Lilly & Company gave the Keynote Address at the celebration dinner.

Those attending Thursday’s event were thankful for the opportunity to participate in the historic program. U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan said it’s important to celebrate diversity, and Thursday’s event did that. He said he’s looking forward to attending the program again in the years to come. Candace Lillie, the director of student services, diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Merrillville Community School Corp., shared a similar view as Mrvan. “Black History is America’s history, so I think it’s something that we should celebrate,” Lillie said. “Not just Black History, but every facet of our county’s history, we should celebrate it all.” State Rep. Vernon Smith called the Black History Celebration Dinner an “amazing event,” and he commended the town for its vision to plan the program. Smith said he was busy in Indianapolis most of Thursday fulfilling his responsibilities as a state lawmaker, but he wasn’t going to miss the event. “I drove straight here from the state capitol because we were working late tonight, and I’m so glad I came,” Smith said.

He said he was impressed with the turnout at the inaugural event and “the stellar quality of the entertainment.” He was referencing a dance presentation by the South Shore Dance Alliance as well as musical performances by the Three Sopranos, Terry Richardson & Ensemble, and the Steven Manns Jr. Band.

Like Smith, Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor said he was impressed with Thursday’s program. “This was a nice event, it really was,” Snedecor said. “It was excellent.”

The South Shore Dance Alliance provided a variety of dances celebrating the theme of the evening.

I was honored to be involved with this worthy project and look forward to growing the committee and building on the amazing foundation that we set for this annual event. For our first time, this really was a home run. -Rick Bella, Town Council President and Ward 5 Representative. 

The Event Committee: Barbara Young, Shelia Shine, Pat Reardon, Tarrance Price, Brenda Mecchia, Sopana Keating, Linda Rosas, Rick Bella, Richard Hardaway, and Keisha Norman - all are town employees with exception to Bella and Hardaway who are on the Town Council. Mr. Hardaway served as the Committee Chairman.
Steven Manns, Jr. and his band provided some of the music for the event.
The sold out event was attended by 350 guests representing a very diverse crowd representative of Merrillville.

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